By Chad Anderson and Kelsey Tollefson | Executive Editor John Lenker
This is the third article in a three-part series about the prospects and future of space mining. Part one, “Asteroid Prospects: The Facts and Future of Space Mining” can be found here. “Asteroid Prospects II: Between a Rock and a Hard Place” can be found here.
We’ve all heard the buzz about commercial space. Even if we didn’t have a vested interest in the progress within the industry, the hype would be hard to ignore. The prospect of circum-lunar tourism and bustling space colonies seems fantastic, surreal—and perhaps, to some, a tad far-fetched. But the fact is that commercial space is moving towards actualizing these dreams.
The private space industry is a large and rapidly-growing market which—according to a recent Goldman Sachs report—will be worth trillions of dollars in years to come.1 As commercial space companies emerge and diversify, we see the foundations of a space-based economy beginning to solidify. In the future, we believe asteroid mining will be key to the development of a healthy space economy. But what would a “space economy” actually look like? And what will it take to get us there?
The space economy will require a complex and interconnected network of commercial players.
Image credit: NASA – Artist’s rendering of an in-space colony, c.1970
A space economy would, in essence, involve a sustainable, competitive, and ever-evolving ecosystem of products and services that take place off-planet—though critical ground-based infrastructure will be necessary. Creating and maintaining a healthy space economy will require an energetic landscape of players, with consumer demand and inter-company competition continuing to drive forward innovation and drive down costs. There are certainly more commercial space startups than ever before in history—and while many of these ventures are globally concentrated (in the US, and increasingly in Europe), a host of international companies are beginning to emerge. Although it may one day present legal or regulatory challenges, an international roster of participating companies will be crucial to establishing a sustainable space economy.
Related reading: Disrupting Space – The Rise of the European Space Sector
A thriving space economy will encompass a wide range of space-based activities. Key components of a thriving space economy will likely include: in-orbit manufacturing (in the form of 3D printing and assembly robots); spacecraft and satellite component repair outposts; the production and distribution of rocket propellant; asteroid or planetary mining to source water, raw materials for additive manufacturing, and other resources necessary to sustain life; and importantly low-cost, reliable, and frequent launches to provide a wide range of commercial players access to space.
Asteroid mining will be key to developing a sustainable economy in space.
Image credit: Planetary Resources – The Planetary Resources team next to their A3R asteroid prospecting spacecraft.
Niche segments of the commercial space industry—specifically, asteroid mining—may hold the solution to sustaining a healthy economy off-Earth. Planetary Resources is a SAN-funded venture that is developing technology to mine asteroids for resources. These resources will have major value to both space-based and terrestrial markets in years to come. In fact, Planetary Resources is poised to become foundational to a successful space-based economy. Asteroid mining represents a key component of the “industrial infrastructure”1 that will enable commercial activities to thrive in LEO, cislunar space, and beyond.
Planetary Resources’ prime long-term goal is to remotely prospect and mine asteroids for their materials. These resources range from precious metals, like platinum, to basic compounds like water—and all would be critical to a growing space economy. Firstly, materials mined from asteroids could be pulverized and turned to filament (or “feedstock”) for 3D printing. Space-based 3D printing—otherwise known as additive manufacturing—could be used to create tools, habitats, and even spacecraft in situ. This ability would impart a sense of autonomy to those who lived in orbit, as well as represent a significant source of revenue for manufacturing companies.
Related reading: The Untapped Value of In-Space Manufacturing
What’s more, asteroid mining may enable the establishment of spaceship “gas station” outposts in various orbits. The value of readily-available rocket fuel in space is astronomical. Rocket fuel is expensive, heavy, and a main limiting factor in space exploration and travel—at least, when said fuel is launched from the Earth’s surface. Spacecraft fueled in-orbit would be far more efficient. Part of Planetary Resources’ long-term vision is to harness the hydrogen and oxygen molecules found in asteroids, and convert them into rocket fuel.3 You read that correctly—rocket propellant can be created from the building blocks of water (which, incidentally, is another resource vital to sustaining life in space).
Planetary Resources has positioned itself for success, in part because the organization recognizes the terrestrial importance of a sustainable and diverse space economy. In the words of James Orsulak, Director of Sales and Business Development at Planetary Resources, “the industries that drive commerce on Earth…are beginning to see that space is not a stand-alone industry—it is a new medium to conduct business and generate revenue.”1
In Defense of the Dreamers: Why investing in space mining makes sense.
Image credit: Planetary Resources
At Space Angels, we look to invest in entrepreneurs with a big bold vision—and a practical plan to get there. We look for passion- and purpose-driven businesses, more so than those focused solely on making money. In our eyes, profit is a byproduct of the mission. This has proven a successful strategy for SpaceX, a startup company in 2002 with an audacious mission to colonize Mars, and for Planet, a San Francisco-based garage startup in 2013 with plans to image every corner of the Earth daily and disrupt the established $200B+ satellite industry. We saw the same combination of brashness and ambition in Planetary Resources’ mission to extend our economy beyond the gravity well of Earth and make us a truly space-faring species.
Planetary Resources is led by Chris Lewicki, Flight Director for Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, Surface Mission Manager for Phoenix, recipient of two NASA Exceptional Achievement Medals, and asteroid namesake (13609 Lewicki). While many may have been deterred by the perceived impracticality of space mining, Lewicki has built an incredible team with the ability to actually pull it off.
What’s more, Planetary Resources was instrumental in the effort which led to the passage of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act—these Obama-era regulations allow commercial space ventures to profit from resources extracted from celestial bodies.5 And while mining operations may not begin this year, Planetary Resources has been experimenting with business models to generate revenue in order to fund the development of their asteroid mining technology. This diversification has led to plans for the company’s CERES constellation of Earth-observing satellites—similar to how SpaceX is launching communications satellites to fund development of technology that will take humans to Mars.6 Lewicki’s mission has become increasingly realistic as the company has convinced private investors—and the government of Luxembourg—to invest real money into the asteroid mining venture. And now, the business plan is getting validation from mainstream analysts at Goldman Sachs—the recent investment report recognizes that asteroid mining, while still in the early stages, would be an “economic game changer.”7
We are entering of a momentous period in human exploration.
Image Credit: SpaceX
Never before has there been more interest, activity, or economic investment in commercial space. Space is a relatively new arena for investors, but recent years have seen a huge amount of private equity investment in the industry: In 2016 alone, nearly $3 billion was invested in commercial space companies.8 Since 2012, private investors have supplied the growing commercial space industry with over $7 billion in capital.9
Goldman Sachs pointed out in their investment report that commercial space has reached an inflection point10—”that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.”11 NASA has also recognized the momentum within the space industry, and has been actively soliciting proposals for “tipping point” technologies that will redefine humanity’s relationship with space exploration. NASA’s role in accelerating development within the commercial space landscape cannot, perhaps, be overstated—but there are other players who are helping to usher in a new era in space exploration. Specifically, the investors who are helping space startups to prove their value in this exciting new marketplace.
As the world’s leading investor in early-stage space startups, Space Angels has a unique view into the commercial space landscape. We believe that commercial space has provided—and will continue to provide, at least in the near future—angel investors with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to affect real change within an exciting and unprecedented market, while also fulfilling a deep-seated human desire to explore our universe. At Space Angels, we believe that investing in space startups like Planetary Resources will not only change the course of humanity, but also provide an avenue for investors to meaningfully participate in this next great adventure.
- Poponak, Noah, Matthew Porat, Michael Bishop, Chris Hallam, Brett Feldman, and Heath P. Terry. Space: The Next Investment Frontier. Goldman Sachs Group, April 4th, 2017. PDF. Profiles in Innovation.
- Poponak, Noah, et al. Space: The Next Investment Frontier. p. 75. 2017. PDF.
- “The Trillion Dollar Market: Fuel in Space from Asteroids.” Planetary Resources. Planetary Resources, Inc., 6 June 2014. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
- Orsulak, James. “Our Global Infrastructure Is Expanding into Space.” Planetary Resources. Planetary Resources, Inc., 3 Apr. 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
- Wall, Mike. “New Space Mining Legislation Is ‘History in the Making’.” Space.com. Purch Media, 20 Nov. 2015. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
- Kelleher, Kevin. “SpaceX: Satellite Internet Plans Could Be Hugely Profitable.” Time. Time Inc., 18 Jan. 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
- Poponak, Noah, et al. Space: The Next Investment Frontier. p. 35. 2017. PDF.
- Anderson, Chad. “Record-breaking Year for the Entrepreneurial Space Industry.” Space Angels. Space Angels Network, 09 Jan. 2017. Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
- Poponak, Noah, et al. Space: The Next Investment Frontier. pp. 4 & 18. 2017. PDF.
- Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002. Print.